A Long Florida Road Trip Becomes Marriage Therapy, Without the Therapist
How a getaway to Key West helped one couple resolve some long-standing differences
Something happens when you’re cooped up in a car with the same person for hours. Issues and grievances otherwise dormant may bubble to the surface. There are few distractions, no doors to slam or corners for sulking. Nothing but time and the open highway.
My husband and I experienced just that kind of trip last spring when we set off in our subcompact Nissan for what was supposed to be a fun week in South Florida. But we brought along a bit more baggage than the kind we loaded into the Nissan’s trunk. The drive became part therapy — a crucible for testing, and ultimately strengthening, our relationship.
The talking begins
It was raining and well past noon as I carried the last of my luggage to the car — crying. We’d started late, not because we’d been sleeping in or last-minute packing but because of the gray apathy that descends in the aftermath of any marital strife. This morning’s conflict started when I asked my husband about a recent errand where he’d picked up some fast food. As so often happens in marriage, it wasn’t what I said but how I said it. He detected the thin vein of disapproval in my question, and he didn’t appreciate it.
Maybe under other circumstances, an apology would have sufficed and we would have moved on. But this wasn’t an isolated incident. I tend to give unsolicited advice to people I love (actually, only one person I love), and he has a knack for picking up on criticism, no matter how tactfully worded. It’s a problem we hadn’t solved in 14 years, and it didn’t seem likely we would now. As I climbed into the passenger’s seat, I felt certain our vacation was already ruined.
If our path to resolution would be fraught with difficulty, our drive would be simple. We were headed from our home in Tampa to Key West, cutting across the state’s heartland north of the Everglades instead of hugging the coast. With a few scenic detours, it would be about 1,000 miles and 18 hours of driving time round-trip.
The landscape as we drove east from Tampa is one you don’t often see in Florida. Away from the beaches, suburbia softens into open countryside. Citrus groves and pastures line the road, not a strip mall or condo in sight. It’s the kind of setting suited to a good, long talk: a flat road, no stops or interruptions, bucolic and somehow peaceful.
So talk I did. As we barreled down U.S. Highway 98 some 60 miles outside of Tampa, I started expressing how sorry I was, reassuring my spouse how much I loved him. But our conversation went in circles. He had a point — if you judge a person’s actions, isn’t that admitting there’s a part of that person you would change, a part that isn’t perfect to you? It was a paradox, unanswerable, and we arrived that evening at our first stop, Sebring, somewhat downcast. The weather matched our mood, a half-hearted drizzle as we walked the roundabout anchoring the downtown’s historic district. Stores, including the quaint soda shop, were closed up early for Sunday. I snapped photos of murals, trying to ignore the wet pavement, the soggy grass and the blank unhappiness in the pit of my stomach.
The discord continues
At breakfast the next morning, discontent hung in the air. We weren’t fighting, but we were on our guard — formal, distant. It was the longest I remember us not being at perfect ease with each other. But our schedule would brook no delays, so we resolutely set off on the trip’s second leg.
First up: nearby Lake Placid, famous for growing 95 percent of the world’s caladium bulbs but earning a spot on my itinerary for its nearly 50 murals, many with sound effects or hidden items. My husband doesn’t care much for murals, but he’s easygoing and gladly chauffeured me from place to place despite the tension between us. At each stop, I’d hop out with my camera, caught between internal misery and a determination to check the town off my bucket list. I kept apologizing for the hassle, the way you apologize about one thing when you should be apologizing for something else.
My favorite mural, the last one we saw, depicts a couple birdwatching. The surrounding garden blends with the painted wall to form a 3D panorama. Even in my subdued mood, I could appreciate the harmony of art and nature and the charm of painted figures looking for birds in a park often filled with them. It was a bitter irony, though — seeing this fictional couple doing a better job of enjoying themselves than we were.
The past is addressed
Back on the road and with more than 300 miles still to go, we started talking again, bringing up things we’d said and done years ago but never fully addressed, accidental hurts and misunderstandings. We were making progress at hashing things out, inching toward resolution, when we passed a minivan turned over in a ditch on the side of the highway. My husband started to pull over, but I admonished him to keep going. We were already running late, and we would reach our next stop barely an hour before closing time. Besides, everyone has cell phones to call for help these days.
He complied but added that it looked like a bad — and recent — accident, which I, literally and figuratively myopic, had missed. Panicking, I begged him to turn around, suddenly frightened that perhaps I was a selfish monster. Caught up in my own woes, I had only seen, from the corner of my eye, someone on the grassy bank beside the highway. As closely as I had looked, it could have been a flat tire.
We hooked the next U-turn and returned to the accident site. The family — a mom and her four kids who had managed to crawl out of the van — didn’t speak English, but they thankfully appeared unhurt. For blankets, my husband gave them two beach towels we had in the car, which they clutched unfolded, silent and wide-eyed with shock. Along with a motley assortment of some half dozen others who had stopped to help, we comforted the family until the police arrived a few minutes later and dismissed us.
Climbing back into our car, I couldn’t help but feel that roadside encounter was the last thing we needed, putting even more of a damper on an already gloomy morning. But my husband had certainly been right in this instance — we should have stopped immediately. Maybe that ready sympathy for others was something I was somehow lacking. Maybe he had a point about all of this. Shaken and humbled, I began talking again with my husband — and listening, especially listening. When I gave advice, strictures, suggestions or well-intentioned hints, it made him feel judged, he explained, like I was saying he wasn’t good enough. When I thought I was helping, I was instead hurting him — the last thing I wanted to do.
I’d like to say we reached a perfect solution, something that wiped away every mistake from the past decade-plus. That didn’t happen, but inside our subcompact, with nothing to do but drive, talk and reflect, we gained a better understanding of ourselves and each other. It became clear to me that I was prone to optimize everything, just as I had meticulously planned our trip to maximize sightseeing. But you can’t treat people that way. Trying to influence or control someone else, even with the best of intentions, only causes pain. My husband, meanwhile, realized his self-worth had to come from himself, not from me or anyone else.
We arrived at these revelations shortly before reaching Flamingo Gardens, a tropical botanical garden west of Fort Lauderdale. They weren’t a panacea, but they were a starting point, and we knew that we loved each other and always would. Strolling through the gardens alongside peacocks, we were friends again. We laughed together at the antics of the native birds and marveled at the banyan tree tunnels. We each pointed out our favorite sights to the other, but it wasn’t about what we saw — it was the shared experience that made it meaningful.
That’s not to say there weren’t more serious talks on the final stretch to Key West, but we both knew all was well and that we had many more miles — and decades — ahead on our journey as a couple.
We reached the Florida Keys in the late afternoon, finding the water as shockingly blue as everyone claims — turquoise, almost teal against the sky. We held hands and gazed at it together, happy and in love.
I don’t know if we could have reached such a good place without the uninterrupted miles and close quarters. And the roadside attractions, with their flamingos and fanciful murals, served a purpose, too, a much-needed reprieve from our private cares, a reminder that the world is indeed wonderful — a place we want to explore and experience together.
Cheryl Rodewig, a longtime journalist based in the U.S. Southeast, has written travel stories for Roadtrippers, Fodor’s, Modern Woman and more.
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